"We must give up the old ways / though they've served us well"
The Sword's frontman/guitarist John D. Cronise insists that he hates literalness in songwriting. The lyrical passage above is from the track "Empty Temples." The first full song on the Austin rock outfit's new album High Country is an ode to letting go of old rituals. Cronise sheepishly admits that the sentiment can also be applied to the directional shift his band has taken on their newest work.
The Sword first gained fame with their 2006 debut Age of Winters. The quartet's rumbling Sabbathian doom riffs and swords-and-sorcery lyrical imagery resonated with rock radio fans fearing the genre had gone soft and struck a chord during the height of the Guitar Hero craze. The band's overall sound evolved over their next few albums, but High Country is truly a departure point.
The record is still very much rooted in classic rock/metal influences. But the points of reference this time are more in line with the catchiness of Thin Lizzy and the boogie-blues of ZZ Top than with the dark force of Black Sabbath. Cronise and the rest of the band hit a stage in their career where they were ready for change.
"If we didn't experiment or try different stuff and were just looking to replicate our last album, I think I probably would have quit the band," says Cronise during a phone interview two weeks ago after a hometown show in Austin.
The new record's sense of experimentation is signaled immediately upon pressing play. High Country begins with "Unicorn Farm," a 50-second instrumental intro consisting of funk keyboard layered over an electronic drumbeat. Other moments that seem at odds with past albums from The Sword include several songs that prominently feature '70s analog synth work, and members of Latin music outfit Grupo Fantasma contributing swinging horn accompaniment on the track "Early Snow."
Cronise admits that once word started getting around Austin music circles about the different ideas they were trying on High Country¸ producer Adrian Quesada – a former member of Grupo Fantasma – started taking flak from The Sword's admirers.
"He was getting some shit from friends of his that were The Sword fans," says Cronise. "They were screaming 'don't go fucking up The Sword and turn them into a salsa band!' But we were totally down for experimenting."
Some longtime fans of The Sword reading about these new influences infiltrating the band's sound are probably a little leery. But the band scatters the variety and integrates it well throughout the record, and when combined with straight-up classic rockers like "Early Temples" and "Tears Like Diamonds," the result is the band's most engaging album since their debut almost a decade ago.
The sense of change within The Sword is not just evident in their musical approach. Cronise has begun turning to his own life experiences for lyrical inspiration, a far cry from the fantastical imagery that fueled the band's early work.
"Back then, I was trying to create the sonic equivalent of a comic book or a science fiction story," says Cronise. "I don't need to write about Conan The Barbarian anymore. I can supply the source material at this point."
Cronise admits during our interview that his band is in a very different place mentally than they were ten years ago. In 2015, The Sword is a band perfectly content with getting older alongside their fan base.
"Trying to pretend that we're still raging twentysomethings isn't a good look," says Cronise. "I saw this Freddie Mercury interview from the early '80s where he says 'Rock and roll is a young man's game. I can't see myself at age 60 prancing around doing it.' I feel like heavy metal is a young man's game too. Our drummer said about the new record that 'these are the songs I want to play when we're old.'"
The Sword performs with All Them Witches and Mondo Drag at the Glass House, 200 W. 2nd St., Pomona, (877) 435-9849, Wed. Oct. 21, www.theglasshouse.us. 8p.m. $22-25. All ages.